Saturday, February 23, 2013

Three books about discovering reading

In this blog I have often spoken about the importance of reading when we learn a language. I would say more, being able to read and fully understand text is key for cognitive development. But reading should also be a pleasure, and I totally subscribe what Jorge Luis Borges said about it:

"El verbo leer, como el verbo amar y el verbo soñar, no soporta el modo imperativo. Yo siempre les aconsejé a mis estudiantes que si un libro los aburre lo dejen; que no lo lean porque es famoso, que no lean un libro porque es moderno, que no lean un libro porque es antiguo. La lectura debe ser una de las formas de la felicidad y no se puede obligar a nadie a ser feliz".

I'd like to introduce 3 short novels for children by Alfredo Gómez Cerdá that share a common theme: reading opens doors to imagination, adventures and a new future. They also show that reading is a pleasure and, naturally, students should be provided with the tools to enjoy reading.

The three books are set, at least partially,  in a library. What a better place than a library to get the taste of books and stories?

First, let´s talk a bit about the author, Alfredo Gómez Cerdá. He is one of the most prestigious writers in Spanish for children and young adults with over 100 published books in the last 30 years. He has received numerous literary awards for his works, among them the National Award for children´s literature in Spain. He has been included in the prestigious list White Ravens, that every year recommends books from many countries for children and teenagers. His books have been translated to around 15 languages but none in English. He keeps a blog with lots of information on his works:


I met Alfredo in 2009 thanks to Rosa, Valerio´s teacher in the book El Ratón de Laviana. Rosa Serdio is a real person and her enthusiasm for the teaching profession is very authentic. At that time we invited Alfredo to come to Alberta and do some work with students in the Spanish bilingual programs. Alfredo has been working with schools for many years and interacting with young students is one of the parts he likes the best about his job. I remember that I asked him for titles to suggest to the schools prior to his visit and he gave me 12 titles organized by age group. Three of them I am introducing today.
The first suggestion is El Ratón de Laviana. Laviana is a small town in Northern Spain where Rosa Serdio works at an elementary school. One of her students, Valerio, discovers with the help of his teacher, the excitement of reading stories in the local library. Everything goes fine until Valerio meets "el  ratón", who is an avid reader but also a voracious book eater. Valerio needs to find a compromise so both can share the books. The compromise is "un bartolo", a delicious cake from that area in Spain. A book worth reading with students in grades 4-5 in a Spanish bilingual program.


The second title is El Monstruo y la Bibliotecaria. A monster makes his home in a library. The temperature inside is always adequate and he has thousand of books to spend his time with. Soon, he makes friends with the librarian and starts to read for the children. He becomes the heart and soul of the library, along with the librarian. The book is set in Albacete, in La Mancha, the land of Don Quijote. As everybody knows, a magic land where windmills become giants and monsters read for the children in the libraries. One of the activities we can do based on the book is a play with our students, because the story is very theatrical and not difficult to be adapted. In fact, the theatre company Tercero Izquierda Teatro  has developed a play for children called El Monstruo que se coló en la Biblioteca. I would suggest this book for students in the last years of elementary education, grades. 5-6.


The third book is Barro de Medellín, Premio Nacional de Literatura Infantil y Juvenil 2009. Camilo is ten and lives in Santo Domingo Savio, a poor neighbourhood in Medellín, Colombia. His father is abusive and spends all the money his wife earns in alcohol. Camilo doesn´t go to school any more and spends his time in the streets with his friend, Andrés. Together they spend their time idling and covering Camilo´s house with mud after every day rain fall. One day, they discover the new library. At the beginning it is just a place to steal books but soon they learn that reading can be exciting and it may open a new future for them. It can be a good book to read with grades 9 or 10 in a bilingual program. The value of reading and the role of the libraries is at the centre of the book but many other themes can be tracked: friendship, poverty and lack of opportunities, decision making  and how the place where we are born and live influences us.


The novel allows many different activities. Two suggestions:
  • The activities provided by the publisher, available in this link.
  • A very interesting activity done by a school. Students have to write what the life of Camilo and Andrés will be like in some years time. The results are very interesting: Colegio Santa Rosa - Altoaragón.

I also find worth mentioning the project inspired by the book. Xandra Uribe is a creative writer and a producer. She has been living in the States for 20 years and she has produced songs, short films and spots. Originally from Colombia, she has kept touch with her home place. After reading the book she contacted the author to adapt the novel into a musical. Now, two young protagonists also find a future through culture, and in this case, dancing.

Three books that, among many other themes, speak about reading, libraries and all the possibilities we encounter when we read a story we like. Three stories that can also open the doors to multiple activities with our students. And if they don´t like them, which I honestly doubt, I will introduce some other possibilities soon.

Monday, February 18, 2013

A bit of Flamenco for the Spanish class

Last week I was at school and one student asked me if there were lots of guitar playing and dancing every day where I originally come from. She was curious because she had just started guitar lessons and her teacher mentioned this in the class. Being a Spaniard in Canada, it is not the first time they have asked me a similar question and it won't be the last time. I must admit that before coming to Canada, my knowledge of flamenco was very limited. I was only interested in  guitar playing which I found enjoyable and fascinating. But it seems many people expected me to be an expert in flamenco music so I did my research to keep up with expectations.

Seriously,  I think flamenco is one of the most distinctive cultural manifestations from Spain and it can be a great topic for the Spanish bilingual class. Flamenco includes singing, guitar playing and dancing and it is deeply related to other artistic fields such as literature and cinema. Numerous  artists, writers and poets from Spain and many other countries considered flamenco as an exceptional artistic representation full of passion and artistry. Moreover, flamenco is in debt with many cultural heritages in the world. Although flamenco is, as I said, distinctively Spanish it has roots with most of people from different cultures that have influenced Spain in history: the Arabs, the Jewish, the Gypsies and more recently, the Spanish speaking countries. Therefore, some multidisciplinary work can be done with other subject areas such as Music, Art and Social Studies.

For a bilingual program high school or even grade nine, the workshop on flamenco created by Agustín Yagüe is phenomenal: the proposed activities include cultural aspects, history and background of flamenco, and study of the different styles. All these element are combined with linguistic activities based on the lyrics of different flamenco songs. He also introduces some of the most famous flamenco singers and players such as Camarón de la Isla and Paco de Lucía. The workshop starts with demystifying some misconceptions most people have, even in Spain, about flamenco. It continues with references to the history and formation of flamenco and with linguistic activities based on several pieces representing some of the styles in flamenco. It is a great resource that can be very useful in a bilingual or IB Spanish program.

If we want to focus on the cultural aspect of flamenco rather than in the language or the historical background,  the film Flamenco by Carlos Saura can be a good choice to give students an insight of what flamenco is and means. The film  presents 13 different styles through a performance by some of the most famous flamenco artists of all time. All the performances are interesting and worth commenting but I would like to focus on 4 pieces:
  • Guajira,  it shows the link between flamenco and Latin America, one more proof of the relation of flamenco with cultures from different origins.
  • Martinete, probably the oldest style in flamenco. Martinetes are usually performed just with "the body" and no musical instruments are included.
  • Paco de Lucía,  the most influential flamenco guitarist. His influence has trespassed flamenco and has reached guitarists of all styles. 
  • Camarón de la Isla, the man who changed flamenco singing forever. Years after his death, he is still revered as the master of "cante jondo" by the aficionados to flamenco.
The film is available in YouTube:

I mentioned that flamenco has had a close relation with other arts. The cinema is one of them, and besides the before mentioned film, there are other titles that we can use, such as Sevillanas, El Amor Brujo. The link with literature is also profound. For many years flamenco was considered a minor form of art for uneducated people. However, this vision changed at the beginning of the 20th century with the group of writers known as Generación del 27 and especially García Lorca and his poetry book  Poema del Cante Jondo. In this book, the poet writes songs following the traditional structure of the flamenco styles and deals with the same themes of loss,  unfulfilled love, fate, tragic destiny and death, so common in the flamenco singing. My suggestion to complete the topic of flamenco is to use the poem La Guitarra by Lorca as an activity to summarize what we learnt about flamenco. Other poems from the mentioned book can be used too or by poet Manuel Machado


 I wouldn´t conclude this post without talking about the classical guitar and its meaning for Spanish people. Not in vain we call it "guitarra española", Spanish Guitar. It is probably the most extended and traditional instrument in Spanish speaking countries. Spanish musicians were also the first ones who gave the guitar the status of musical instrument for a classical concert. I would like to give just two suggestions: one classical piece by the father of classical guitar, Francisco Tárrega, Recuerdos de la Alhambra, performed by classical guitarist Andrés Segovia.

The second suggestion is a young virtuoso guitarist, Nemanja Ostoich, who regularly performs classic pieces written by composers from different Spanish speaking countries, Leo Brower, Heitor Villalobos, Isaac Albéniz. In this video he uses a baroque guitar to play a piece by Gaspar Sanz, a composer from the XVII century:

Flamenco and classical guitar, two interrelated topics for the Spanish class. They are distinctively related to the Spanish culture and can be used to introduce cultural aspects but also linguistic activities.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The European Language Portfolio

In a previous post, I introduced the bilingual project that the IES Llanes in Seville, Spain is doing. I mentioned that the different subject area teachers that work in the bilingual program get involved in multidisciplinary projects. Students can self-assess their progress and building their personal language portfolios  in the target language. These portfolios follow the structure of the European Language Portfolio (ELP). For those not familiar with it, here is further information extracted from the websites of the European Council.

The ELP was an initiative of the Language Policy Division of the Council of Europe. It was piloted from 1998 to 2000 and launched in 2001. Basically, the ELP is a personal document for the language learner that has three parts:
  1. A language passport where the learner can summarize his/her linguistic and cultural identity, language qualifications, experience of using different languages and contacts with different cultures. It is important to point out that the passport includes all the learner's contact with languages, at school but also outside school.
  2. A language biography that helps the learner to set learning targets, to record and reflect language learning   and on intercultural experiences and regularly assess progress.
  3. A dossier where the learner can keep samples of his/her work in the language(s) that he/she is learning. 
The goals for launching the ELP are:
  1. to support the development of learner autonomy, pluralingualism and intercultural awareness and competence;
  2. to allow users to record their language learning achievement and their experience of learning and using languages.
The ELP works in close relation with the Common European Framework of Reference (CEFR). The CEFR was designated to provide transparent, coherent and comprehensive basis for elaborating syllabuses, learning materials and the assessment of language proficiency. The CEFR describes language proficiency at six levels: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2. This scheme makes it possible to compare resources, tests and examinations across languages and national boundaries. It also provides a basis for recognizing language qualifications.

The Language Passport in the ELP will use the six levels of proficiency summarized for the five skills of listening, reading, spoken interaction, spoken production and writing in a self assessment grid. 

The descriptors in the different cells of the self-assessment grid are expanded into checklists of tasks that can be used to plan, monitor and evaluate learning. For example, the descriptor for B1 WRITING might be expanded into the following tasks:
  • I can write notes giving simple information to friends, service people, teachers and others who feature in my everyday life.
  • I can write personal letters giving news and expressing my thoughts about music, films etc. in some detail and getting across what I feel is important
  • I can write notes or message to check information and ask about or explain problems with reasonable precision.
  • I can take down messages communicating enquiries and relaying problems.
When learners can perform these tasks in another language they can record in their Language Passport that their level for writing in that language is B1.

Moreover, teachers can expand and adapt these checklists to adjust to the different tasks and projects they are working with their student. This way students can monitor their progress regularly and very accurately.
All the information in this post has been taking from two websites from the Council of Europe. Both provide clear and thorough information about language policies in Europe and explain in detail the origin and goals of the ELP and the CEFR. The websites also include examples of experiences implementing the ELP and the CEFR and best practices. Both websites are a great tool for teachers who want to start using portfolios in their classes.

To learn more about the CEFR in the Canadian context visit: Link.

To see a copy of the CEFR self assessment grid, click below:

The ELP and CEFR are two tools worth exploring. They can be very useful in our Spanish Bilingual Programs.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

A TV program about the Educational System in Spain

Salvados is one of my favourite TV programs in Spain. Furthermore, its director and presenter, Jordi Évole, has created a new style of doing television and  dealing with controversial issues, which I find particularly interesting. If I am not mistaken, the program has just started its sixth season. And the first program boldly attempts to address a controversial "education" issue in Spain.

To give you some figures about the educational system in Spain:
  • The government is preparing its seventh Education Law since 1978. Any new government  has promulgated a new General Education Policy. In most cases,  these policies were never implemented properly.
  • The results in the PISA report for Spain are mediocre at best.
  • Spain has one of the highest rates in Europe of students abandoning the school system before graduation (over 30%).
  • About 32% of students attend private schools or  publicly funded private schools, the second highest percentage in Europe, according to the TV program.
  • Due to the crisis, in the last year's the cuts in education have meant, among other things, that teachers have increased instructional hours and obviously, larger classes (as many as 30 in elementary education and 35 in secondary).
The presenter talks to a university professor and visits a school in Barcelona to offer a vision of education in Spain. Unfortunately, everyone involved in the documentary has a negative opinion on how things have gone in the last years. It seems that the education system in Spain has not been able to keep pace with the last pedagogical and technological advances. The perception you get after watching the program is theres is a disjoint between society and schools and that something must be done about it.
To complete his vision on education and find answers, the presenter visits a school in Finland, which traditionally has occupied the top positions in the PISA reports. We learn that most schools are publicly funded and that society support their educational system overall, because they feel proud of it. A career in teaching is highly valued so spots in the faculties of education are in very high demand. There were things that I particularly liked about the way they organize schools and some others that surprised me: 
  • The timetable - a short break period after every class in elementary schools.
  • Resources, books and meals are included in schooling paid through taxes.
  • Students are taught about responsibility since they are very young. They even walk to school at a very early age. Yes, it is a safe country.
  • Their success lie in the fact that schools are not detached from society but is one of its foundations.

The nice surprise? Naturally, the Spanish bilingual programs in Finland. I have never heard that there were Spanish bilingual programs in Finland and that they wereso popular. And the reason to explain their popularity, according to the teacher in the program? Apparently some Spanish soap operas have been very successful in Finland and TV programs are never dubbed.
It is not the first time that I have spoken about education in Finland in this blog but I find their approach to education serious and professional, a matter of state. I still remember, some years ago, when I took part in one E-Twinning project with a school in Finland.The teacher I worked with once mentioned to me: "I am a grandmother already but I still want to explore new things with my students." An incredible declaration of principles. To watch the program, click below and enjoy!

Monday, February 4, 2013

Two short films for the Spanish bilingual class

Maintaining the usage of an ethical discourse in class where everyone feels comfortable is something that I have always strived to do when teaching. Obviously, I am not talking about language acquisition but about the ethical compromise teachers must have with their students and with society. Of course, many teachers are already working hard to fulfill this duty. I have always thought that what we say in a classroom and our teaching approaches have to be ethical and consistent. I also often wondered how many times my students felt frustrated when my words and my actions showed some discrepancy.
I suggest these two short films that you may use to facilitate discussion about the related topics above with students. 
The first short film is Hiyab, by Xavi Sala. We meet Fatima, a Muslim girl, who attends high school for the first time. A teacher tries to convince her that wearing a hijab is not a good idea because everyone "has to be the same in school" and respect all beliefs and religions. She also asks Fatima, "you don't want to be the freak in the class, do you?". The teacher was well-intentioned but her choice of words was questionable. Fatima reluctantly agrees to take her hijab off but she gets a surprise when she enters the classroom.

The short film shows how difficult it can be to balance individual freedom and institutional policies and to maintain individuality in a group. It provokes thinking about our roles of teachers. The film also challenges how much empathy and tolerance the once-homogeneous Spanish society may actually have for cultural minorities.

The educator in the second short film is the coach of a chidren's soccer team. Lucas, one of his players, spends all his time on the bench. He gets tired of not having the opportunity to play; so, he reminds his coach about the team's motto: "winning is not the most important, participating is".  Moreover, the coach's encouragement for players to win at all costs was contradictory to Lucas' sportsmanship. Lucas has to wait and wait until the day of the final when he gets the chance to teach the coach a small lesson.

Both short films use language comprehensible to junior high and high school students. They serve as starting points to interesting discussions related to some of the outcomes students work in other subject areas such as:
  • Understand how identity and self-esteem are shaped by multiple personal, social, linguistic and cultural factors.
  • Demonstrate sensitivity to the personal and emotional aspects of identity.
  • Demonstrate skills required to maintain individuality within a group.
To sum up, both films effectively demonstrate the potential effects that our words and attitudes have on students. These stories offer a lucid vision of the problems students may encounter in their daily lives and the struggles they may face to maintain their individuality.